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Gwynydd Francis (Gwyn) James (1912–1994)

by Melanie Nolan

This article was published:

Gwynydd Francis James (1912–1994), historian and publisher, was born on 28 June 1912 at Bolton, England, eldest of four surviving children of William Job James, blacksmith, and his wife Eliza Frances, née Callow, the daughter of a carpenter, wheelwright, and pattern maker. Gwyn was educated at Burton Grammar School, Staffordshire, and at the University of Birmingham (BA Hons, 1933; MA, 1937). The quality of his master’s thesis on the seventeenth-century British Admiralty brought him to the attention of (Sir) Keith Hancock, then a professor of history at Birmingham. James became a research assistant (1935–37) at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and then, under Hancock’s influence, successfully applied for a joint college-university appointment as a tutor in history (1938–39) at St Andrew’s College, University of Sydney.

In January 1939 James read a paper at the biennial meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) in Canberra, arguing the need for a scholarly journal for historians in Australia and New Zealand. He impressed Max Crawford, professor of history at the University of Melbourne, who had been thinking along the same lines. Crawford lobbied his university to support the journal while Frank Wilmot, the manager of Melbourne University Press (MUP), persuaded his editorial board to publish it. In 1940 James accepted a lectureship which Crawford had created at the University of Melbourne and became the founding editor (1940–46) of Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand. He married Evelyn Noad, an English-born schoolteacher, on 15 April 1940 at the Congregational Church manse, Kew.

In 1942 MUP published the first of several books by James arising from his local history research: A Homestead History, about a Victorian pastoral run. That year, wishing to contribute to Australia’s effort in World War II, he began part-time work as assistant to an engineer at the Commonwealth Ordnance Factory, Maribyrnong, but he was released to take up the position for which he is best known, as manager (1943–62) of MUP. He continued to lecture part time in the history department until 1948. On a visit to England after the war, he turned down offers from two English universities, deciding that he was now committed to MUP. Widowed in June 1948 when his first wife committed suicide, he married Melbourne-born Patricia Mary Stewart, a clerk, on 5 September 1949 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne. He did not share his second wife’s Catholic faith, but nor was he a Protestant: his brother-in-law recalled ‘he was “non-conformist”—though still a believer’ (Ingham 1995, 479).

James was fortunate that his two decades as MUP manager coincided with a period when literacy rates were increasing, along with access to tertiary education. He assiduously cultivated historians to publish with MUP: Geoffrey Blainey, Geoffrey Serle, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Weston Bate, Margaret Kiddle, and, later, Ann Blainey. He was also responsible for securing two flagship multi-volumed publications: Manning Clark’s A History of Australia, published from 1962, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), from 1966. In 1943 MUP was ‘not much more than the Melbourne University Bookshop’ (Ingham 1995, 477). Under James’s direction it became a leading Australian publisher with its university bookroom joined by a trade department for its own publications, a printing and binding works, a storehouse, a Melbourne head office, and branches in Sydney and Hobart.

According to Peter Ryan, who succeeded him as manager, James ‘had deep feeling for typography, quality book production, and the sacred (yes, sacred) role of rigorous editorial integrity’ (Ryan 2000, 87). He employed book designers such as Alison Forbes and editors such as Barbara Ramsden, who were behind MUP’s reputation for ‘well-designed, well-edited books’ (Tomlinson 1994, 10). No expense was spared in the pursuit of quality: for the ADB he selected a rare nine-point Juliana typeface and cajoled a local manufacturer of fine papers to produce a special cream laid paper in an unconventional sheet size. James was, however, economically innocent and his ambitions for MUP were ‘not matched by managerial capacity or administrative experience’ (Ryan 2010, 13). In 1961 the press’s bank overdraft exceeded £150,000, with a trading surplus of less than £4,000. For this reason, he was encouraged to retire in 1962.

James then focused on his local history research, publishing Walhalla Heyday (1970) and Border Country (1984), while ‘proofreading for, and guiding authors of, local district and personal histories’ (Age 1994, 16). He was publications officer (1973–78) for the newly formed Public Record Office of Victoria and from 1977 the biographical editor for the fourth edition of The Australian Encyclopedia (1983). In 1991 he was appointed AM for service to the publishing industry. Survived by his wife and their four children, he died on 17 September 1994 at Camberwell and was cremated. Colleagues and friends remembered him as an Anglo-Australian with a ‘gritty Midlands accent’ (Ingham 1995, 478) that remained strong even after fifty-six years in Australia, together with ‘the very sharp wit that so often goes with it’ (Tomlinson 1994, 10).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Gwynydd Francis James, 82.’ 18 November 1994, 16
  • Anderson, Fay. An Historian’s Life: Max Crawford and the Politics of Academic Freedom. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2005
  • Australian Historical Studies. ‘Fifty Years in the Making of Australian Historical Studies.’ 24, no. 95 (1990): 171–74
  • Ingham, Sidney. ‘Gwynned [sic] Francis James 1912–1994.’ Australian Historical Studies 26, no. 104 (1995): 477–79
  • James, Gwynydd F. Interview by Cecily Close, 1992. Audiorecording. University of Melbourne Archives
  • Ryan, Peter. ‘The ADB.’ Quadrant 44, no. 6 (June 2000): 87–88
  • Ryan, Peter. Final Proof: Memoirs of a Publisher. Sydney: Quadrant Books, 2010
  • Tomlinson, Jock. ‘Manager Strove for Quality Publishing.’ Australian, 25 November 1994, 10
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1983.0002, James, Gwynydd Francis. Papers (1900–1962)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Melanie Nolan, 'James, Gwynydd Francis (Gwyn) (1912–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Gwyn James, c.1960

Gwyn James, c.1960

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/77785

Life Summary [details]


28 June, 1912
Bolton, Manchester, England


17 September, 1994 (aged 82)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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